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ART: NEW ZEALAND PAINTINGS

From Chapter 16 of the memoir Compass Points


Art, for my sake. I rather liked painting and drawing at school, but that didn’t mean talent. My eyes were first opened to art by F.L.W. (Freddie) Wood, professor of history at Victoria University of Wellington, in a second-year course on the Renaissance. One day he said, ‘No lecture, we are going to look at pictures,’ and proceeded with a slide show of the major art of that period. I knew from then what one fair part of my interests in life would be.

The paintings I saw around me were mainly contemporary prints from abroad, but after I started working, New Zealand art began to call. Joining the Department of External Affairs stimulated that process: it was buying New Zealand art for embassies abroad and people there were keen to see and discuss it. By then I was married and Rachel was as excited as I to explore this budding field.

Our start-up purchase was by Robyn Kahukiwa, who had her first showing at Elva Bett’s gallery, in a garage as I recall, somewhere in the Te Aro area of Wellington. The painting was of three Maori by the sea, the youngest, a boy, above the waterline and looking straight at the viewer, and the future; the oldest, a woman, wading in the sea searching for kaimoana (shellfish) and immersed in the old ways; the third, another woman intermediate in age and positioned between the two, sitting in the shallows in deep thought. It was clearly a commentary on the issues of Maori adaptation to the modern world, and we have had it showing continuously in our various homes for over 50 years now. It was also the prime example of Robyn’s transition from her previous career as a commercial artist to an ‘arts’ artist.
It was not until our return from our second posting in Washington that we were able to buy more original New Zealand art. Over there we had bought some popular prints, such as Renoir’s Afternoon of the Boating Party from the Phillips Gallery, which are pleasing enough and have occupied secondary places, which mainly means bathrooms, around our houses, ever since. Back home Peter McLeavey was well ensconced as the doyen of Wellington art dealers with a portfolio of the country’s top artists, and we became regulars at his openings in those years, 1971–73. Each purchase had a story.

Once we saw in Peter’s stack room a Toss Woollaston painting of a suspicious face with narrowed eyes and a fag in the corner of his mouth — The Kiwi Joker, Peter said it was called. He recounted how Toss had seen the man in a West Coast town and sketched him immediately, and painted him back at his studio while the memory was fresh. But no, it was not for sale; Toss had asked Peter to look after it for him. If he changes his mind let us know first, we said.


Michael Smither’s painting of the Rock and Pillar range accompanied us to Canberra, 1978-80


Once we saw in Peter’s stack room a Toss Woollaston painting of a suspicious face with narrowed eyes and a fag in the corner of his mouth — The Kiwi Joker, Peter said it was called. He recounted how Toss had seen the man in a West Coast town and sketched him immediately, and painted him back at his studio while the memory was fresh. But no, it was not for sale; Toss had asked Peter to look after it for him. If he changes his mind let us know first, we said.
It was nine months later that Peter rang. I’ve talked to Toss and he said that the painting can go, he said. ‘Um, and the price?’ I asked, expecting to have to opt out. But it was a steal and we went down quickly to collect it.

In our rented home in Washington we had to use various leftover paintings that the ministry had sent to the embassy and senior staff did not require, but for Rome we took our own modest collection. At a dinner party one evening a senior Italian Foreign Ministry official glanced at them and sniffed, ‘Derivative New York School. Why can’t your artists do something original?’ He really meant, why don’t your artists work in an Italian sfumato style?
I did not venture to try and induct him into the great New Zealand debate about how our sharp-edged paintings reflected the clarity, or even harshness, of our sunlight, and its corollary about European blurred-edged landscapes, because he would have just been mystified by it. Nor did I see much point in noting the obvious distinctiveness of some of the landscapes that were the subject of the paintings — a Bill Sutton Canterbury Grasses or a  Michael Smither Rock and Pillar Range, for example, because it was not subject matter that he was referring to. Certainly I did not suggest, because I had no idea of it at the time, that some of the style was, as Francis Pound has argued, derived from medieval and early renaissance art, including the Flemish Primitives as they used to be called. Nor, again from Pound, that to the extent American art was the source of inspiration it was more from American regionalism than the New York school. The attitude my Italian colleague reflected, that a certain soft-edged style was elegant and sophisticated, and our sort was raw and primitive, was deeply entrenched.

And so I said something harmless that the art represented the best that New Zealand artists of the time were producing, and that we were very proud of it, feeling it provided us with icons of our country while we were abroad. One day the mail at the embassy produced a flier for an art opening in Florence by a New Zealand artist who had trained in an Italian art school. It was Barbara Goodwin and the advert showed a female nude in what might indeed be sfumato, and certainly unlike any figurative painting I had seen in New Zealand. It was a good excuse for a family trip to Florence and so we went and purchased the ‘cover’ painting of the nude. We still have it and are pleased with it.

It was always satisfying to be able to integrate a deep affection for New Zealand art with my job, feeling that understanding, owning and presenting New Zealand art was a part of representing the country overseas. But living abroad meant the art was not limited to this. Western Samoa had not been strong on art galleries but Washington DC certainly was. Our favourites were the very large National Gallery and the more intimate Philips Gallery, which held the stunning original of our Renoir print. We came to like many art periods, including particularly modern art since the Second World War, and the American artist on his own track, Edward Hopper.